Russian Criminal Tattoos

The three books, the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia I, II and III published by Fuel, are one of our favorites. The books, filled with the crazy, absurd and often very violent tattoo drawings by Danzig Baldaev are going into an exhibition now. Between 1948-1986, during his career as a prison guard, Baldaev made over 3,000 drawings of tattoos. They were his gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives, status and traditions of the convicts that wore them. Baldaev made comprehensive notes about each tattoo, which he then carefully reproduced in his tiny St. Petersburg flat. The resulting exquisitely detailed ink drawings are accompanied with his handwritten notes and signature on the reverse, the paper is yellowed with age, and carries Baldaev’s stamp, giving the drawings a visceral temporality – almost like skin. In 2009 Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell (FUEL) purchased the entire archive of 739 original sheets of tattoo drawings from Baldaev’s widow and published the three books.
Last week Galerie Max Hetzler opened an exhibition featuring the original works from the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia in Berlin. When you’re around, make sure to visit Galerie Max Hetzler at the Oudenarder Straße 16-20 in Berlin, Germany. (The exhibition ‘Original Works from the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia’ will run between April 27 and June 16, 2012)